FANDI Ahmad finally cut through the smoke-screen to admit that more than half the young footballers under his wing are into the game of puffing.
And if you trace back these severe misdeeds, it goes back close to a decade but the authorities just turned a blind eye to this setback although it is a fact of sport that smoking is well-documented as a serious hazard to your health.
No wonder Singapore’s junior squads at every age-group level have been trounced by regional neighbours in AFF (Asean Football Federation) and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) competitions because they were not physically fit to last a 90-minute match and the longer-term severity of smoking was never really drilled home.
Let’s not beat round the bush and realise that smoking is the most deadly hindrance to athletic performance, as it inhibits oxygen supply to your brain, heart and muscles. In addition, smoking decreases your body’s capacity to heal, weakens your skeleton and raises your blood pressure.
Matter of fact, athletes who smoke have less endurance, are weaker and suffer more injuries than their nonsmoking competitors.
In November 2016, seven talented junior FAS footballers were banned for vaping (consuming electronic cigarette or e-cigarette) and missed playing for Singapore in the AFC Under 14 Tournament. They were caught allegedly vaping sometime in March and received “one overseas tournament ban”.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) were informed about the disciplinary action and the 13-year-olds, described by their coach as “very skilful footballers”, did not play in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, in July, where the Lions had disastrous results, losing three matches and conceding 27 goals (Vietnam 8-0, Myanmar 6-1, Thailand 10-1) and drawing 3-3 with Brunei.
MAJOR DISCIPLINARY ACTION
It is reliably learnt FAS Belgian Technical Director Michel Sablon was apparently not informed of this major disciplinary action, prior to the Brunei assignment, hinting to a possible major cover-up at the FAS headquarters.
A parent, who identified as Mr Leong, then said he was “very disappointed that cover-ups of poor behaviour by the FAS are not setting the right example for young footballers. We’re concerned as parents that the FAS don’t instill enough sense of discipline and character,”
Another parent, who asked not to be named, said he was “shocked close to half the team, preparing for the AFC Under 14 tournament, were on unacceptable behaviour”.
“My son told me the FAS tried to hush hush the matter and told the players to keep quiet after half the team were given one overseas tournament ban. No wonder the FAS has a string of poor results at junior age-group levels,” he adds, shaking his head in disappointment.
“We must see football as a proven mechanism for teaching a set of values that are much more important than the game itself,” he says. “The FAS must take the lead and teach kids that personal character can propel them much further than their speed or agility on the field.”
Former Singapore award-winning coach Jita Singh, declining to specifically comment on the latest FAS anti-smoking measures, cites the role-model example of Bundesliga (Germany) 26-times champion Bayern Munich, where “personal character and discipline are ranked far higher than football skills”.
He says: “I salute the Bayern way they handle the young players. They share how discipline and perseverance can help overcome adversity. They talk about longer-term loyalty and integrity because those qualities will help them become a constructive force in any organisation. They explain how respect and selflessness can improve relationships.”
Jita, who was ‘Coach of the Year 1981’ and now a club concultant, describes himself as a “hard-core disciplinarian and character-builder”.
He adds: “Character takes time to develop. It takes plenty of encouragement, too. And in our experience, an enduring commitment from a mentor is vital. For many kids, that mentor is a parent. But sometimes a parent is either not an option, or not enough.”
Using the analogy of football-loving parents, he adds: “We both credit much of our success to a handful of special people who invested in us. We were blessed with strong fathers and mothers who gave everything they had to set us on the right path and there were others who selflessly guided us along the way. Siblings, coaches and other father figures played an outsized role in determining the type of people we are today.”
PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE
Doctors say young footballers are more likely to become heavy smokers by the end, compared to their peers. “It’s such an emerging public health issue,” says a leading doctor. “These teens aren’t just experimenting, significant portions are progressing to more regular levels of smoking.”
The latest FAS move to absolutely go towards a “zero tolerance” approach is definitely a step in the right direction. But it’s a pity these weren’t seriously drummed home to the younger generation a decade ago or more.
“I don’t think it’s any more unreasonable than the other rules and consequences for breaking curfew or gambling. It’s not illegal to stay up late or place a bet by law, but if we accept these rules for footballers, we shouldn’t complain about the ones for smoking,” says a former Lions star defender, who asked not to be named. “”Those who want to continue are doing so at their own risk.”
Like Fandi, a disciplined non-smoker, Hariss Harun, the Johor Darul Takzim midfielder who is probably the best overseas Singaporean, says: “It’s a good initiative by the FAS and it’s not about discriminating against smokers. There will be some who feel they can still perform at a high level, but I wonder how much better they can be, or we can be as a team if they don’t smoke.
“Football is a sport that requires every player to be in top condition for the team to have the best chance of doing well. Little things make a difference in modern sport. Athletes are modifying diets and doing what they can to have an edge over their rivals. As a developed country, we have the technology and sports science, we should also be responsible for what we do to our body.”
For the sake of Singapore football, which is now very close to its doldrum with a FIFA No 173 ranking, one of the worst in three decades, the younger players must cut off cigarettes or risk being kicked out of the team.
There is an urgent need to help clean up Singapore football’s battered image and, more importantly, from the stadiums in Jurong West to Yishun, Bedok to Toa Payoh, Jalan Besar to Tampines, there must be a smoke-free environment to create a healthier environment and cleaner image for football.
Schoolteacher Jeffrey Toh, from Bukit Batok says: “This is a very serious football problem, If you ask the public whether local swimmers or footballers have a better image, chances are, they will say the swimmers, because footballers have been linked to smoking and ill discipline, and it’s important to change this for the future of the sport.”
Former Malaysia Cup veteran R. Suriamurthy, who holds the record for playing for the most number of Malaysia clubs in the 1990s, says young players have a solemn responsbility to good habits if they want to embark on a professional career.
DEDICATION TO FITNESS
He says: “Being a professional footballer today involves not only fame and fortune but also a dedication to fitness and training. In the past is was widely accepted that footballers would lead the party lifestyle drinking, smoking and not looking after their bodies.
“As far back as the early 1900s cigarette companies and some footballers actually formed advertising partnerships. Even cigarette packets were sold with a card containing an image of a popular player, and the famous Sir Stanley Matthews, over 50 years later, promoted a particular brand of cigarettes.
“Today professional players follow strict diet and training regimes and are even subject to curfews and restrictions during the main playing season particularly prior to big matches. It is surprising then to see some of our favourite stars with a cigarette in their mouth.”
Thank you to Fandi, the icon of Singapore football, for throwing the right smoke to raise this issue publicly.
He adds: “The plan is to provide counselling to these smokers, and they will be given a timeframe to quit. The aim is to get this done before the league kicks off at the end of March.”
Besides the clampdown on smoking, the FAS is also aiming to improve players’ performances on the pitch by changing the mandatory fitness test which they need to pass to play. The previous 2.4km fitness test has been replaced this season by the Yo-Yo test which will be held twice or thrice.
Fandi, 55, who is FAS head coach (youth) and oversees the SEA Games and Asian Games squads, reiterates that smoking and football can never ever mix.
“You must stop holding on to cigarettes if you’re a serious professional footballer,” he says. “Smoking is a major personal and professional problem and it will affect fitness levels. This (the latest FAS decision) is a good move that I think will help the team in the long run. And it will also be better for the health of the smokers who quit.”
Likewise, the other S-League clubs and even National Football League (NFL) clubs, must throw the book at players who persist on smoking.
The bottom line: Zero tolerance to cigarettes. Sack the smokers if Singapore football ever wants to go up the FIFA ladder to be a serious Asean contender.